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In Print, Out of Bounds: Penal Press Poetry and the “Absurdity” of Creative Freedom

Sat, November 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hawai'i Convention Center, Mtg Rm 301 A


In his seminal The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard affirms the importance of the imagination to “miniaturizing the world” and resisting constrained environments by proclaiming: “How many times poet-painters, in their prisons, have broken through walls, by way of a tunnel! […] And to get out of prison all means are good ones. If need be, mere absurdity can be a source of freedom.” This paper represents a preliminary step towards uncovering the situation and role of poetry in newsletters contained within the Penal Press database—often a mainstay of these publications whether they are explicitly framed as literary outlets or not. Alison Griffiths’ Carceral Fantasies, though largely focused on cinematic renderings of prison life and the experience of viewing films while incarcerated, sees significant overlap between the psychic flights of fancy undertaken by imprisoned people who watch cinema and produce works of creative writing. Referring to an 1899 statement by an individual who describes the act of overcoming spatial limitations as “building air castles,” Griffiths argues that "reading and writing poetry were other ways prisoners built air castles. Both were a serious business behind bars.” This idea evokes a set of tensions between the “absurdity” or impracticality of such utopian or nonrepresentational imaginings and the "serious business" of treating poetry as a pragmatic method of self-expression, care, and reclamation of power. I am interested in exploring how poems were solicited, advertised, and framed within the larger context of a newspaper's readership (whether that implied entertainment, opinion, community building), and how this speaks to the ways in which a particular framing aesthetic or genre is thought to be transformative of prison life. For example, Matsqui Institution’s InsideOut is exclusively a literary magazine, while William Head Institution’s Out of Bounds presents poetry more as an addendum to opinion essays on an array of issues and policies encompassed by the criminal justice system—from scapegoating and smoking bans to parole reviews and restorative justice. Numerous initiatives have sought to tap into the rehabilitative potential of structured writing environments, such as the Arizona Prison Writing Project and PEN Prison Writing Program, both instituted around 1970. More recently, the Poets-Behind-Bars initiative at Indiana State Prison explicitly developed programming as a type of therapy, even conducting research studies in tandem with their creative writing workshops that assessed growth in emotional balance and self-expression over one year. While these initiatives have likely served restorative purposes, they are also undoubtedly influenced by institutional parameters that do not always take into account imprisoned peoples’ wants and needs. This paper thus analyzes how early and recent examples of prison poetry are framed by imprisoned writers’ themselves as a means of exploring why their understanding of creative expression might have developed along parallel or diverging tracks from “mainstream” publications.


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